The National Transport Hall of Fame would not be where it is today without the unflinching support of this humble trucking hero.
“Mr Couper is the King of the truckies!” said one child to his father when Lew Couper featured in the Ninghan News upon his induction into the Shell Rimula Wall of Fame by the National Road Transport Hall of Fame. Although Couper humbly rebuffs this title, there is little doubt that he is transport royalty regardless.
Couper was amongst the first inductees into the Shell Rimula Wall of Fame in its inaugural year of 2000 – a recognition he describes as one of his proudest moments in his remarkable transport career.
For Couper, it all started on his family farm in the small town of Trayning in Western Australia’s north-eastern Wheatbelt region. The family owned a TK Bedford KGL model truck – its 18-foot tray and 2-deck sheep crate making it much larger than typical for a farm truck at the time.
Nonetheless, it proved incredibly valuable when widespread drought hit Western Australia in 1969. Set against the background of a run of good rains throughout the 1960s, the failure of the 1969 winter meant crop yields were diminished, pastures provided little or no feed for the stock and grain and fodder reserves proved insufficient.
As a result, the region saw massive stock movements as farmers sought agistment in greener pastures. A local stock agent had approached Couper’s father to ask if he could spare Couper on the farm to help cart sheep to Kalgoorlie where they would be taken east by rail. Once he started in the transport industry, Couper did not look back, spending the next 38 years growing Trayning Transport Services.
With his farming background, Couper thoroughly enjoyed carting to the pastoral stations across Australia. With a few loaves of bread and a newspaper a week old in hand, Couper would trade these city luxuries for some of the seemingly endless knowledge of the land that these pastoralists held.
With 15 years behind the wheel transporting livestock, wool, fertiliser and grain and the benefit of the expertise gained from those pastoralists he met along his travels, Couper had many ideas as to how he’d like to see the industry improved but no forum to share these.
He soon learnt about the Livestock Transporters Association of Western Australia, as it then was, and joined in 1985. Just one year later, Couper was elected to serve as chairman of the Association, a position he proudly held for many years. Couper went on to serve as the vice president and, later, the president of the national body, the Australian Livestock Transporters Association. Although he describes the endeavor as a “massive learning curve”, Couper was instrumental in effecting much positive progress in the road transport industry.
Couper maintained seven trucks in his 38 years in transport. The final truck was a 1980 White Road Boss prime mover, affectionately named Old Red. Couper, knowing he didn’t want to sell the truck, had promised to donate Old Red to the National Road Transport Hall of Fame upon his retirement.
With his son and a group of dedicated friends for support, Couper and Old Red headed for Alice Springs. The team received nothing short of a royal send-off from Trayning, with its residents donating fuel for the journey and coming out to wave off the man and his machine that had served their region dutifully for so long. The trip to Alice Springs took three days, although, Couper admits, they were in no rush, enjoying a well-stocked BBQ and “plenty of cool drink” each night.
Old Red had covered more than two and a half million kilometers by the time Couper reached Alice Springs in 2007. While Old Red settled into retirement in Alice Springs, Couper had only been back in Trayning for a week when he received the call from a Shire engineer who asked if he could help out for “a couple of days”, filling in for a truck driver who was unwell. Two and a half years later, Couper retired…properly this time.
As a founding member of the National Road Transport Hall of Fame and dedicated advocate for the organisation, Couper was the perfect candidate to fill the position as Patron of the Hall of Fame, a role left open upon the passing of the former Patron, Slim Dusty.
When Couper was asked if he would accept the position in 2007, he recounts: “I bloody near cried! I couldn’t believe it!”
Couper notes the importance of the National Road Transport Hall of Fame in encouraging recognition in what was otherwise an undercelebrated industry. Taking particular notice of the inductees and their families at the induction ceremonies, Couper says: “You can see the pride and joy that flows out of the people.” Couper continues to serve as Patron for the organisation today, a position he says he is “so very proud of.”
When asked what advice Couper would give to the operators out on the road today, he gives three important pieces of counsel: Always drive with care and respect to all road users, don’t be afraid to ask for advice if you need and be proud of your achievements.
Couper reminds those working in transport that they are “working in an industry with lots of friends”, and advice is readily available if you are willing to ask. He describes preparing to cart his first load of wool, headed to Fremantle Harbour, and being approached by a fellow driver who observed: “Is it your first load, young fella?”
Couper recalls thinking: “How the hell would he know that?” but, nonetheless, to this day, appreciates the kindness this fellow driver showed as he walked Couper around the machine and talked him through the best practice for the trip.
A true gentleman and a pillar of the industry, the National Road Transport Hall of Fame would like to extend its deepest gratitude to Couper for his ongoing support of the organisation.
The organisation and, indeed, the transport industry would not be what it is today without Couper’s contributions.
Ainsleigh Bilato is advisory committee member at National Road Transport Museum, Alice Springs